Denise Woodard sold her engagement ring to start a business; her products are now sold in over 14,000 stores

BY Preta Peace Namasaba March 23, 2024 5:33 AM EDT
Denise Woodard. Photo credit: Partake Foods

Denise Woodard went all in when she started allergy-friendly food brand Partake Foods.  She used up her savings, maxed out her credit cards, emptied her 401k and quit her job. She even sold her engagement ring. Having raised more than $25 million in funding and achieving tremendous revenue growth, Woodard’s gamble is paying off. Her consumer products are currently distributed in over 14,000 stores.

“I left my corporate job determined to create tasty, allergy-friendly treats that everyone could enjoy, not just those with dietary restrictions. While building the brand, I worked long hours and burned through my personal savings to make my dream a reality—from selling cookies store-by-store (out of my car!) and clearing out my 401k to selling my engagement ring to bootstrap Partake—my entrepreneurial spirit never wavered,” Woodard said of her journey building Partake Foods.

Woodard was driven by neither profit nor visions of wealth when building Partake Foods. Instead, she was on an incredibly personal mission to revolutionize food products for the millions of people with food allergies. It all began when Woodard’s seven-month-old daughter had an allergic reaction to a simple baked egg and ended up in the emergency room. Although Woodard and her husband didn’t have any allergies, they soon discovered that their daughter suffered from a long list of food allergies.

Shopping for allergy-friendly foods proved to be an uphill task. The snacks on shelves were made with terrible ingredients and didn’t taste good. Woodard was especially worried that her daughter’s food allergy would alienate her from her peers and ordinary childhood experiences. She sprang into action, getting creative in the kitchen and experimenting with “safe” foods that could still be fun and tasty to eat. Woodard then transformed her family’s lifestyle into Partake’ first product line.

“I wanted to create an inclusive brand that invited people with and without food allergies to enjoy. And I didn’t feel like I was seeing that reflected. And so the name Partake came from this idea of me wanting people with and without dietary restrictions to be able to enjoy,” Woodard explained.

Incorporated in 2016, the early days of building Partake Foods were exhausting. Woodard left a budding career at Coca-Cola where she was promoted to Director of National Sales, Venturing and Emergent Brands to officially launch her startup. She initially developed the recipes in her kitchen and sold three flavors of cookies out of the back of her car. Woodard would make demos in the evenings and go to trade shows on the weekends. For the first nine months, the brand was self-distributed and self-funded.

When Woodard tried to raise seed funding, she received nearly 100 rejections. But she was not about to quit because the going was tough. She owed it to her daughter to persist and see the project through. Woodard overcame funding challenges by partnering with people who believed in her and were willing to support Partake’s growth. Partake has partnered with well-known brands such as Ben & Jerry’s, DoubleTree by Hilton and American Airlines which provides the brand’s cookies in its first-class cabins.

Investors have been unable to deny the success of Partake Foods when Woodard shows them the business metrics. The company received funding via the Jay-Z co-funded Marcy Venture Partners in 2019 which helped scale the business. Partake currently offers certified gluten-free, non-GMO, vegan snacks free of the top nine allergens (wheat, tree nuts, peanuts, milk, eggs, soy, fish, sesame and shellfish). It has achieved 69% revenue growth, raised more than $25 million in capital and increased distribution from 6,000 doors to 14,000 doors.

With a focus on margins and profitability, Woodard has built a successful business, and a loyal client base and secured high-profile partnerships and investors. Partake partners with organizations like No Kid Hungry to provide food-insecure families with access to safe food, education and advocacy. It has launched a nonprofit, Black Futures Fellowship to increase DEI in the industry by matching HBCU students with paid internships and job opportunities at CPG food and beverage companies.

Woodard views entrepreneurship as a game of dodgeball, dodging one obstacle as another comes up but continuing to persevere nonetheless. It is therefore no surprise that she bet everything on her business – and won.